“What is truth?” Pilate famously asked Jesus in Gospel writer John’s version of Jesus’ trial. Jesus had just informed the Roman governor of Judea, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
This exchange came to mind as three recent New York Times articles began percolating in my head.
“Believing What You Don’t Believe” by professors of behavioral science Jane L. Risen and A. David Nussbaum reports on an experiment in which participants were instructed to label one bowl of sugar “sucrose” and an identical bowl as “sodium cyanide (poison).” Despite the fact that the persons themselves chose which to label, they nonetheless resisted using sugar from the bowl labelled poisonous.
The authors then apply the contrast between fast and slow thinking. The volunteers’ instinct (fast thinking) was not to touch the bowl labelled as poison, and though their reason (slow thinking) might be used as a corrective to realize the labels were by their own arbitrary designation, “People can simultaneously recognize that, rationally, their superstitious belief is impossible, but persist in their belief and their behavior.” They may even try to rationalize their irrational, intuitive decisions.
The article concludes with an illustration of how setting in place a policy in advance can avoid the pitfall of following “a powerful but misguided intuition in a specific situation.”*
“How to Live a Lie” by philosophy professor William Irwin questions the “objective reality” of God, free will, and morality. He posits that many live by moral or religious or ethical “fictionalism,” voluntarily or involuntarily, and some may understand such fictionalism as “mythologically true,” while at the same time knowing that these constructs are “not literally true.”
All this touches my experience as I have grappled with the reality of God. I don’t want to make the mistake of allowing superstition to determine my beliefs or behavior while, at the same time, I believe myth speaks to the unknowable (or not yet known) in human experience.
The articles converge for me as I consider that setting in place “policies” (as in the first article) about God, morality, and free will can help civilization and us personally.
The Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, “God is love,” equal rights, the separation of church and state, and belief in personal and corporate responsibility have contributed to our culture in positive ways, for example.
But is embracing such policies finding the truth, or rationalization, a kind of mind-game?
“The Light Beam Rider” by biographer Walter Isaacson celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein, he observes, was able to advance science by beginning with what he called “Gedankenexperimente,” “thought experiments,” or what we might colloquially call daydreaming or mind-games.
The author gives pertinent examples, and then concludes, “That ability to visualize the unseen has always been the key to creative genius. As Einstein later put it, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’”
This week, helping with a spiritual formation course on Ignatian spirituality, I am learning that imagination plays a key role in its understanding of prayer.
Could all this mean that the imagination and thought experiments of mystics, theologians, and ethicists are “key to creative genius” and of more value than “certain” knowledge about God?
Could that be why the teachings of spiritual founders like Jesus have captured our own spiritual imaginations?
*I just learned last week on the fascinating PBS series, The Brain with (neuroscientist) David Eagleman, that this is known as a “Ulysses’ contract.” Ulysses had himself tied to the mast so he couldn’t sail his ship onto the rocks when he heard the seductive sirens’ song.
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